Mea culpa a thousand times over; I knew better than to allow my son to be weighed at school.
I don’t think that scales belong in schools. I read the email stating that students would be weighed the following day, and I absolutely intended to write a note indicating that I forbid the school from weighing my son, but life got in the way of my intentions and I forgot. And so, last year, my then 12-year-old son was weighed by the school nurse. As luck would have it, this nurse had neither the training nor the intelligence to refrain from making negative comments to kids whose height/weight ratio didn’t match her chart. My son came home in an uncharacteristic bad mood, opened his school bag, and removed a note from the school nurse telling me that he needed to be checked by a doctor. Apparently, the school nurse told my son that there is “something wrong” with him and he was worried. At that point, my heart was on the floor shattered in pieces. I could have and should have avoided this. I gave my son a hug and told him that the nurse was definitely mistaken. I reminded him that he had been weighed and measured by our family doctor a few months earlier and I reassured him that the doctor told us that he was absolutely fine.
When the school nurse called to tell me that I need to take my son to the doctor for a follow up, I fully admit that I laid into her. I admonished her for lowering my son’s self esteem and making him feel bad about himself. Her response to me was that more than half of the kids in the class had notes sent home so it wasn’t like she singled my son out (as if I would feel better knowing that she had shamed 15 kids instead of just my kid). I told her that her behavior negated any possible benefit that can come out of weighing kids at school and that if anything, she did far more harm than good.
I firmly believe that kids of all ages should be weighed. It is extremely important to establish a baseline and to monitor your child’s weight. However, this should be done in a doctor’s office, by a medical professional who knows better than to make a child feel uncomfortable or to downplay a worrisome drop in weight, and who can offer intelligent, sound strategies to promote your child’s health and well-being.
Weighing a child on a one-off basis, without any context or baseline, does not show a full picture. For example, my son weighed 11.5 pounds at birth. He was in the hundredth percentile in both height and weight from the second that he was born. This is context that the school nurse was missing but that my doctor has.
I would love to see proof that weight screening in schools lowers childhood obesity or catches eating disorders, but there is no such proof. Schools are not “safe” places for kids to be weighed. The process is not always private; and as such, kids who are on either end of the weight spectrum are susceptible to teasing. While some school nurses respect the privacy of the students, are sensitive not to alarm or shame a student if his/her weight is out of range, know how to spot eating disorders, and are capable of offering solid health advice, others, as in my son’s case, should not be involved with weight issues. They can harm a child by slashing his/her self esteem, ravaging his/her body image, and putting him/her at risk for dangerous weight loss by insinuating, implying, or downright stating that he/she is overweight. Words cause damage. I seriously doubt that shaming anyone has ever resulted in healthy weight loss; if anything, it can contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
Weight screening in schools gives information, but it’s just numbers without any context, and it does not offer students or parents any type of useful strategy for promoting good health. Furthermore, who knows what guidelines are being used to determine what is considered to be a “healthy” weight range? All things considered, I think that the risks of weighing kids at school outweigh the benefits hands down (no pun intended!).
If weighing kids in school is at some point proven to have a positive effect, if it is part of a wide curriculum that promotes health through medically sound nutrition and activity, and if all school nurses are given comprehensive training on the spectrum of eating disorders and how to weigh kids without negatively impacting them, I may change my mind. Meanwhile, I object to putting my kid on a scale at school. Next time, I plan to drop everything and write that note letting the school know that I do not authorize them to weigh my child; but I hope that the Ministry of Health will come to realize that the current weight screening system is flawed and that there will not be a next time.